Tahan III: Day of the Descent

Dawn breaks quietly on the summit of Gunung Tahan.

It’s 6.50am. Save the basha flysheet and the groundsheet (which does as its name suggests), we are all packed up, set to meet our target set-off time of 7.00am. But whilst waiting for some to finish their…morning affairs, Amanda, Mei Xuan and I follow the light that is beginning to break through the azure dimness of the early dawn.

The weak light first draws us out from the grove of trees that shields our campsite. But as we realise what is happening, a sense of quiet wonder blooms in us.

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Dawn wakes in our hearts, as it breaks upon the summit: we realise that this is going to be the only time we will be hereat this point, with this group of friends. It will never be now again, if we do not seize the moment. And so we make for the (real) summit of Tahan, just a short walk away – first with tentative steps (“eh, you all still not done right? We go there for a bit okay?”), and then with a mounting joy. In my haste i splash clumsily into a few puddles, but I’m not really caring. Mei Xuan, following carefully behind me, yells after me (“EH RUIZHI WHERE ARE YOU LEADING ME??”). Amanda is more careful, Mei Xuan should have followed Amanda…
Up a small little incline, and we are back at the (correct) green signpost we had been celebrating at only yesterday, where Vincent had suddenly exclaimed

“I BROUGHT AN INDONESIAN FLAG BUT I LEFT IT IN MY BACKPACK”

And had then scrabbled back to the campsite to take out his Indonesian pride (on a Malaysian mountain), amid friendly jeers from the rest of us.

This morning, the summit is not a gray,blank fog. This morning, the summit is the smoky dark blue of an stirring day. The trees are slender inkblot silhouettes that frame a sky slowly turning gold. The horizon is serene with the slow, majestic violence of clouds sprawled across the whole sky.

 

The more-than-one minute of silence I had so longed for yesterday is granted, along with our fervent wishes for a Tahan sunrise (Amanda’s friend had remarked that such an event was lamentably rare). Confronted with such stunning, sublime grandeur, this is the only conceivable reaction- one of shocked awe, one of surrender to the quiet beauty of Creation.

It’s possible to be an atheist on the summit of a mountain, watching the sun crack like an egg across the sky, of course it’s possible. But one cannot help but wonder, in every sense of the word; one cannot help but marvel at the spectacle and the miracle that is the greatest show on earth, that happens every single day, often as the rest of the world is still quiet and aslumber. It’s at quiet moments like these you remember again why you climbed, why writers like John Muir say the “mountains are calling and I must go”, and poets like Mary Oliver sing “good morning, good morning, good morning”, and songwriters like Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam)  “praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning”.

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One of my favourite pictures of the summit: on the far left you can see the clouds slowly catching fire

For me, one of these moments was captured in this picture above; the lenticular clouds slowly burnished by the crimson gold of a rousing sun. On the left you can see them: vast, violently apricot commas punctuating the first, the most magnificent sentence of the day. And we all whisper in hushed awe: this is what what we struggled so many hours for yesterday.IMG_4418.JPG

I could wax lyrical forever, until I go and climb another mountain. For more thoughts at the puncak (summit), you can read the thoughts of the team at Pensive on the Puncak: Humans on Tahan.

But one cannot stay at the summit forever. As the legendary mountaineer Ed Viesturs, the only American to have summited all 14 of the world’s 8000m+ mountain peaks once famously quipped:

“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”  – Ed Viesturs

Without much regret, we exceeded our No-Move Time of 7.00am by half an hour. Atan, who had set the time last evening for us, waits patiently at the side, watching perhaps with some amusement at our excitement. During peak season this slim, quiet,youngish looking man climbs the mountain every month. And he has been climbing for about ten years. I wonder what stories he could tell us, if only we understood more Bahasa, instead of having to rely solely on Vincent, who is our team’s translator.

0730 – We finally coalesce back into a coherent, climbing team, ready for action. Grimly, we listen to Atan’s (as usual) short and laconic briefing for the day. It’s going to be a long day. In fact, it’s going to be a long couple of days. The summit is barely the midpoint of the Tahan traverse. At least three more long (read: ten-hour walking) days through undulating dense rainforest terrain lie ahead of us. For today, there are seven key checkpoints, each about an hour apart. Eight, if you count the last checkpoint that is Atan’s ambitious confidence in us. He thinks that at our pace, and if we are quick and daring, we can be at the river campsite of KEM TEKU (168m) by nightfall. That’s a net descent of more than two thousand vertical metres in about twelve hours. We don’t call Atan crazy, because we are also crazy ourselves. Eliza simply says “let’s see how it goes”. We shoulder our backpacks up.

0740 – The descent begins.  

0800 – Water refill, at a puddle:

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Watering hole: refilling our bottles from the disturbingly deep puddles on the track

The going so far has been wonderfully pleasant, on gentle inclines down occasionally slippery trails, punctuated by puddles. For a summit I’m surprised that Tahan is so lushly wet. Some of these puddles are so deep we actually fill our bottles from them. There isn’t much of a choice – there aren’t any running streams for the next few hours, and we have used up most of our water cooking dinner and breakfast. All of us are down to about 1L each for the next three hours. Besides, there’s something very rugged about filling one’s bottle from such a weird source – and we had chlorine tablets anyway. Adventure no? On the mountains, water is a precious resource you don’t just squander away on a 20-minute shower. And the water actually tastes fresh and sweet.

The temperature is wonderfully chilly. Someone remarks it’s a little like Europe in spring or early summer. We don’t actually sweat for the first hour or so, and there are also breathtaking views to marvel at.

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Views on the early descent (Shawn’s photos)
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At the top of the world
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Seven Tahan turtles and their multicoloured shells (Amanda’s photos)

0830 – Atan points to a formidable mountain in the distance, a great peak rising ominously like the fortress of some storybook villain. He tells us that we will have to ascend, and cross that before we continue descending. Our hearts sink as we follow his finger. That’s Gedong, he says.

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Only the beginning of the adventure: Gedong in the distance, 8.35am

0910 – Open terrain characterised the initial descent for the most part, shrouded occasionally by some vegetation. The even parts were made of slippery smooth rocks which were wet. After a general downhill pattern marked by some steep descents, the track gradually begins to rise. We enter again briefly into dense, mossy forest, before emerging back onto open fields studded with finger-length pitcher plants. The sparse vegetation of the upper montane forest, with its bryophytes, fern allies and pitcher plants is fascinating and refreshing after days of looking at rainforest vegetation composed mainly of palms, rotting logs and dubious slimy fungi.

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Forest jewel: a brilliantly pink flower i spotted, even in the thick canopy of the mossy forest
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Little monsters: Pitcher plants at 2000m above sea level

1005-1015BERAPIT. This often unremarked checkpoint is a small, bare space strangely roped off. We take a longer break, because the descent – it’s more accurate to call it an ascent – has been quite exhausting. Vincent takes out his sour and sweet gummies at this point to share with us, which really cheers our spirits and growling tummies up. Atan sits at the side, quietly munching on nasi goreng he had cooked earlier that morning at the campsite. We try not to stare enviously.

The trail after BERAPIT is open and scenic, and we return to a pleasantly flat trot with some occasional ups and downs. This is a clear, open ridgeline, with fields of shrubby plants. Pitcher plants dot the landscape like little yellow lanterns. It’s a lovely day, with blue skies and green hills and a cool wind blowing. It’s perfect for wide-angle group shots, those that have your friends shrunk into the distance, dominated by the distant summits.IMG_4544.JPG

1045  – Puncak Gedong, Atan announces, but this isn’t the checkpoint campsite yet, ‘only’ the summit of Gedong. Eliza announces a sudden, urgent call of nature, so after coming down from the narrow peak onto a relatively flatter portion of the ridgeline, we take a break.

1045 -1107 – Break. It’s a pleasant day, and there is no point in fighting nature’s call, especially when it is so urgent. So we all down our backpacks, sit and catch our breaths. The scenery is amazing, so why not?

 

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“Backside.” On Puncak Gedong, Eliza’s comment foreshadows our twenty-minute break  

1120 – Plane wreckage. As a history nerd, and as a human being, I am a little indignant that previous secretary reports/logs from other climbing teams do not mark this as a checkpoint. Because I’m not exaggerating, there is a plane wreck here. Stray pieces of metal are still strewn across both sides of the track more than forty years after the incident, and we spend quite some time trying to find plane innards along the mountain side as we continue walking.

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A small memorial plaque and a stone memorialises the crash:

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You can also read more about the 4 May incident here.

1143-1150 – KEM GEDONG. This is a bare, exposed space. By the time we reach here we are thirsty, hot, and rather exhausted. As an indication, Shawn has started fantasizing about lunch, and Vincent and I have also joined him. We know that it’s tuna for lunch again today, but the topic quickly moves to sardines, and then from there we enter an animated debate about which is the best sardine curry puffs in Singapore. Of course, this only makes all of us hungrier, including those in the front, who overhear us waxing lyrical about imaginary food. At GEDONG, which is a shadeless, open space with broken signs in fragments, we decide to postpone lunch to the next checkpoint, but as a stopgap we load up on energy bars – Nature Valley Apple Crisps, an option which is clearly a far cry from the best sardine puffs in Singapore. I eat this in a sour mood, because Nature Valley is not a sardine puff. The next waterpoint is moreover four hours away, so we have to make do with whatever water we have left, sipping even in our thirst, even in the increasingly baking midday heat.

The next fifty metres after we leave GEDONG is marked very starkly by bright orange lichen…five minutes after leaving GEDONG the trail takes a very steep dive downward. A guide for a previous mountain had once remarked that “the walking after GEDONG is very difficult”. He wasn’t kidding, as we were about to find out.

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“It’s not sian-ji-pua (sian until halfway), it’s sian-ga-liao (sian until all the way)” – Eliza, who hates descending mountains

The descent involves slippery rocks and awkward huge steps which you cannot safely jump nor hop from, because of the moss that grows on the rocks, and makes you skid even walking on a horizontal plane. Imagine on a sixty degree plane. The vegetation also makes a dramatic change, along with the humidity.Suddenly you dive into dense mossy forest again, and it isn’t Lord of the Rings so much as The Lost World – and you’re not the velociraptors. IMG_4574.JPG

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Lost World: The terrain changes

1230 – METAL LADDER It’s almost as if the mountain just gave up fucking around with you. Not even steep descents now. Not even 60-degree or 70-degree walls. This time, it’s a vertical limestone drop so steep park rangers had to carry metal ladders all the way into the middle of the forest, up uncountable ridgelines, and then lash them together simply so climbers could climb down. You don’t believe me? I wouldn’t believe me too. But behold what can be found in the middle of Tahan on Day Three. It is still Day Three if you enter Tahan from the other side:

 

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Note the sheer verticalness of the moss-covered walls behind Mei Xuan, for scale
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Last men: Shawn’s descent down the rickety, lashed together ladders

And yet – this is only the first ladder, and the easiest. At least on a ladder, you are on steady, if dizzy footing. The descent from here on continues on slippery, moss-eaten rock, and the only thing saving you from a slippery, uncontrolled and bloody slide down are rough, jagged ropes at the side. How do you descend such wet terrain? Very slowly. On all 5s: four limbs and a steady backside. Then you hope for the best, and quietly wish you were climbing up instead of down. With ascending, your quads are strained. With descents, your mental reserve is harrowed, continually worrying and making sure you don’t fall, knowing fully what awaits if you but slide or slip one time. It’s on the descents down such vertical slopes that one is reminded very starkly how dangerous mountain-trekking can be as an adventure sport. The roots are slippery. The branches are slippery. The very rock you’re walking on is slippery. And it’s a long way down, with loose rocks and your friends in the way….

1305 -1335 – RESKIT. The much-awaited lunch checkpoint. By this time we are soaked with perspiration. Our nerves are worn thin. Lunch is once again canned tuna, with bread and cucumber. It is the best thing to eat after such a harrowing climb-down. We are now at 1666m. After lunch, our next checkpoint is Tangga Lima Belas – the fabled “Fifteen Ladders”, after that first one.

1448 -1455 – Tangga Lima Belas. The checkpoint itself is a small little clearing, after a series of shorter ladders rigged to the granite ridgeline. The ladders make for novel, clean climbing, after a whole day of slipping and sliding up and down mud, soil and rock. The terrain, granite and sharp, reminds me very much of Bukit Tabur, near Kuala Lumpur, and it’s a relatively enjoyable portion of the day. Atan remarks that “15 Ladders” is just a name, there are in fact only 9 ladders put in place here. 

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Are You Ready to be on Top: Jared strikes a lovely pose at Tangga Lima Belas

1528 – It starts to rain, very suddenly and exuberantly. Minutes ago, i had slipped and fallen, of all places on a granite surface. It’s a surface scratch, thankfully, but the gash is dramatic, with ruby lines etched across my hairy left shin.

1600 – A bare summit. (Pangkin Atas). Atan passes this point without pause or comment. Then we plunge down further, down a mossy tangle of fallen logs and muddy puddles. Combined with the rain and the slipperiness of everything, this makes for a very gloomy descent.

1625 -1635 – PANGKIN BAWAH. We emerge from the steep, slippery descent onto a bare open space, muddy and ugly. I look at the soil there and cannot help but think ‘SANDFLIES’, whether or not this is true. By the time we arrive here Atan is contemplatively squatting under a huge palm, smoking a cigarette and waiting for us. With the palm fanning out over him, I can’t help but see parallels of Buddha being sheltered from the rain by the Naga serpent of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology in that momentary tableau.

PANGKIN BAWAH does not look like a pleasant campsite – but then again in the mental state we are in nothing seemed very good then. Atan tells us we are no more than an hour from Wray’s Camp, either the final or penultimate checkpoint for the day. I look at Eliza and she shakes her head. Probably not gunning for the riverside today…no point pushing. Atan assures our team, traumatised by the day’s descent, that this stretch isn’t going to be so bad.

…and it isn’t, thankfully. But by this time we have been soaked and slipped. We are grim, and nothing can actually startle us anymore  We just keep going on. The rain falls like an itchy, cold tattoo on our muddied backpacks, as we plod on.

1720 – WRAY’S CAMP. At long last. Wray’s Camp is not obvious from the main track. It is a quick, deft detour up a fern-shrouded incline, which opens up suddenly into a narrow, mossy clearing. TEKU is a three-hour descent down more of the same, slippery terrain, if we wanted to continue. But it is already 5.20pm. 700m downhill in fading light was not our idea of fun, after such a difficult day. Doing our calculations, we decide to make camp at this campsite.

The campsite doesn’t look promising:there’s a puddle of mud, and a sooty crater where a previous group had built a fire. With some improvisation however – which involved throwing leaves onto the mud puddle to soak up the mud + using our feet as very pathetic mops, we clear the shallow puddle enough to eventually pitch two tents.

We attempt to erect the basha, but it’s difficult going in the absence of any real trees to tie clove hitches and anchors from. After observing the quick, easy confidence of Atan building his jungle-palace, they give up and ask him for help. Atan circles our structure, dismantles it – and then just as quickly throws up something steady and anchored. We watch in amazement as he finds a support, anchors our basha to a bunch of ferns (this actually holds), and shows us which angle and where to peg our sheltersheet.

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Learning from the Pro himself

Despite initial appearances, and the cramped nature of our campsite, Wray’s Camp turns out to be one of our most favourite campsites: good evening weather (it had stopped raining shortly before we reached Wray’s Camp) and a general lack of biting insects made this a rather enjoyable piece of real estate.

Dinner this evening still makes my stomach growl, although Eliza keeps musing that it was one of the easiest dinners to make. We have pasta with bacon bits and pork floss mixed in, and hot, steaming Campbell’s soup poured in as a sauce. With a few packets left, we also make Campbell’s soup purely for drinking, along, bizarrely, with a tin of sardines. The combination is a sight for hungry stomachs. We feast.

It has been a long, long day – both experiencing it, and even now, writing it.

In total, we have spent 9 hours 40mins walking today, descending 1289m, as compared to the previous day, where we had taken 8hr 55mins, and ascended 1313m. We unanimously agreed the descent had been much more harrowing, both mentally and physically.

Later in the evening, however, Atan’s briefing only made us steel ourselves for more to come, although underpinned with a note of optimism. Cautiously, we asked him where we would end up tomorrow, given our pace today.

His easy, confident reply shocked us. Oh, i think you can finish the eight river crossings, go up Gunung Rajah, and then camp at the other side. I think, he concluded rather matter-of-factly, that you should be able to finish this trek in five days, not six, if you all do all that tomorrow.

We would be crossing eight rivers tomorrow, and then finish the day off not only by summiting another mountain, but by descending it and camping near its base. The US Navy SEALS have a saying, that “The only easy day was yesterday”. The enormity of the endeavour stunned us into momentary silence.

And then someone said, “I guess tomorrow is game day then.”

Eight river crossings and a mountain to climb. Indeed, it looked set to be.

Others say we’re crazy, but we say we’re so lucky.
ODAC, ODAC, our fighting spirit live on (lives on!)
CJ ODAC, going all the way (all the way!)

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